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It may be hard to believe, but this international break is the final one before the 2022 World Cup.
It feels like a lifetime ago that the Vietnam national team stood just a few improbably victories away from booking their ticket to Qatar.
|Nguyen Quang Hai is playing at a higher level than any of his Vietnamese teammates. Photo qdnd.vn|
It was always unlikely, but there is a parallel world in which this week we’d have been debating the battle for the last couple of spots in coach Park Hang-seo’s squad instead of gearing up for a pair of humdrum friendlies against Singapore and India.
While we’re still left to daydream about playing in a World Cup, the fact that it was closer to a reality than ever before shows how far Vietnamese football has come.
The bar has been raised, which should change things as Vietnam prepare for their next competitive fixtures at the AFF Championship later this year.
The competition plays something of an outsize role in Southeast Asian football as a biannual opportunity for both bragging rights and silverware for nations that otherwise have little chance of the latter.
That outsize role is why in recent days, several Vietnamese language news outlets have speculated on whether Nguyen Quang Hai will play a role in the upcoming tournament.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Hai is on the books of Pau FC in France’s Ligue 2, making him the only member of the national team playing abroad and at a higher level than the V.League 1.
As the AFF Championship is not part of the FIFA calendar, Pau FC are not obliged to release Hai to compete in the tournament, whereas they must let him come play the two friendlies over the next week.
Much of the speculation I’ve seen has focused on whether Park will be able to call upon Hai for the regional tournament by somehow persuading Pau to let him go, but I think the more pertinent question is this: what’s best for Hai?
While the pint-sized playmaker has not yet established himself as a regular starter for Pau, he makes pretty much every match day squad and regularly comes on as a sub.
This shows he has begun carving out a role for himself and is no mere commercial signing (unlike previous Vietnamese stars in Europe), as given how poorly Pau have started the season, manager Didier Tholot has no room for passengers.
Pau have no less than four fixtures during the AFF Championship, wouldn’t it be better for Hai and the future of Vietnamese football as a whole if he played a key role in those matches, rather than playing a tournament that is pretty short on quality?
Besides that, shouldn’t Vietnam be aiming higher than regional glory? As mentioned above, the bar has been raised.
If Park, the VFF and football fans around the country really want Hai to succeed in Europe, and Vietnamese football to kick on, there shouldn’t be any pressure on him to be back in Vietnam later this year.